Jamie Richardson, then serving as White Castle’s director of marketing, had the perfect pitch. He waited outside CEO Bill Ingram’s office, rehearsing it over. The doors opened and he froze.

“All I could blurt out was, it has sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” recalls Richardson, now the brand’s VP of PR. “Other than that, it’s really good for us.”

Ingram, who retired in 2015 after 43 years, handing the reins to his daughter and fourth-generation leader, Lisa Ingram, was quiet. Richardson considered backing out of the room until Bill asked, “what are you talking about?” Richardson had left that detail out.

Earlier, on a Thursday afternoon, Richardson saw “Los Angeles” pop up on the caller ID (this was 20 years ago). It was Cassandra Barbour with Entertainment Clearances, a company that specializes in the acquisition of intellectual property rights and script research. He figured it was one of those Hollywood deals where somebody asks for $250,000 to put White Castle’s logo in a movie scene. But Barbour began relaying a pretty strange story. A movie was being sketched out that centered on two underdogs charting an evening of misadventure. And they end up at a White Castle.

“It sounded made up,” Richardson says.

Barbour asked if she could mail over the script for “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” The next day, a FedEx package arrived. Richardson, a father of five, had three kids back in 2004, and one of them was very young. He got up in the middle of the night that Saturday and decided to grab the script and read as he hung out.

“I thought, ‘wow, she didn’t mention to me it was rated R,’” Richardson says with a laugh.

The studio didn’t ask White Castle for a fee. They just wanted to use the name and backdrop and film some scenes on-site.

Richardson says there was “robust and good dialogue” internally around the themes (Harold and Kumar smoke marijuana, see an advertisement for White Castle, and then decide to get there at all costs). Talks reached an impasse before a colleague suggested Richardson go ask Bill, who, at the end of the day, if he was OK with it, it would happen, and vice versa.

After his initial lockup, Richardson explained in Bill’s office what the movie was about. “He said, ‘you know, one quick question: does it make fun of our team members?’” Richardson says.

It didn’t. The opposite, really. “He goes, ‘Oh, I’m OK with it then.”

Bill didn’t read the script. If Richardson was cool with it, so was he. “And that’s how Bill Ingram greenlighted Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” Richardson says.

White Castle worked closely with New Line Cinema on the project, which was famously given to two junior execs who decided to take a chance on it. Writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg were tired of one-dimension teen movies with characters who didn’t resemble their friends. It prompted them to cast two Asian-Americans in Kal Penn and John Cho as the leads. Cho knocked on Penn’s door a few days before shooting and a friendship began.

White Castle brought Penn, Cho, the writers, and late director Danny Leiner, down to the company’s homebase of Columbus, Ohio, to screen the movie at a downtown theater. It reserved three screens and invited about 800 people, from employees to friends of the brand.

The film’s representatives were inducted into the Cravers Hall of Fame, which was only 4 years old at the time.

And the reaction when the credits rolled? “It was pandemonium,” Richardson says.

White Castle tied in promotional cups and packaging at the time. Richardson remembers some of the brand’s regional directors being a bit skeptical about the potential impact. It was late July and White Castle had enjoyed a solid year-to-date, with same-store sales up about 2.5–3 percent. The week it came out, White Castle’s comps rocketed 29 percent over the prior year.

“I think it’s only the second time in our history we almost ran out of hamburgers,” Richardson says. White Castle has been around since 1921.

The movie actually didn’t open that strongly at the box office. It grossed $5.48 million its first weekend in the U.S. and Canada. Total worldwide, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle grossed $23.9 million on a $9 million budget.

But it wasn’t until the DVD—an “Extreme Unrated” edition arrived on January 4, 2005—that the movie began to cement itself as a cult classic. In the next three years, it would sell 2,878,770 DVDs and gross $30.6 million.

Richardson recalls being in meetings that winter discussing blanket softness across the burger category. Weather was tough. It was especially harsh in the Midwest. But White Castle was “growing and growing,” Richardson says.

“People were scratching their heads and saying, ‘what’s causing this?’ Then somebody said, ‘the DVD,’” he says.

White Castle is rolling out the merch to celebrate 20 years.

Twenty years later, as White Castle celebrates the two-decade anniversary of the film with special promotions and merchandise, Richardson looks back on the partnership and relationships that endured. New Line Cinema, at the time, was a scrappy, challenger-type shop that felt a lot like White Castle, Richardson says. Before it premiered, White Castle dropped down in L.A. and set up a mobile Castle to serve sliders on the Sunset Strip.

The brand had its hand in “six or seven” scenes along the way. One example being Harold and Kumar pulling up to a closed White Castle and being disappointed. “We’re opening Castles each year, not closing them,” Richardson says. That ended up as a different restaurant brand.

There was a dream sequence of a dog lifting its leg and Coca-Cola coming out. Given White Castle and the beverage giant have partnered since 1921, the movie agreed to scrap the scene. It was going to be difficult, and costly, with CGI anyway.

But more broadly, Richardson felt at the time, and still does, the reason the movie resonated and uplifted White Castle was because the larger sentiment was plausible. “It became metaphorical,” he says, “because I think the reason we were able to say yes and do it in a way that was authentic was because we knew people thought of us as a destination. Whatever inspiration might have led to that start of that journey, being family owned and being around, at that point, going into 85 years, we knew people sought us out.”

White Castle ended 2023 with 342 units, only five of which are franchised. Its scarcity and regional fandom have been part of the story for decades. Whenever White Castle breaks into or returns to a market (Arizona and Orlando come to mind), the news is like a theme park opening. The Orlando store sold some five million sliders in its first year.  

“That scarcity on paper might look like a weakness,” Richardson says. “But in an odd way, it was kind of a benefit for that pilgrimage that people were willing to make. The quest for something that was out of the ordinary. So, knowing that the behavior already existed made it, candidly, plausible. The story rang true, I think, because that’s how we’re lucky. People have intense feelings about White Castle.” Not many brands can take Valentine’s Day reservations—a tradition that began in 1991—and see upward of 30,000 people sign up and drive hundreds of miles to eat with a red and white tablecloth.

White Castle simply exists on a more emotional plane than most restaurant, or retail, brands, Richardson explains. So the idea two people would hang glide off a cliff to get there after a night for the ages, fits into a deeper dimension of who the brand is. “It’s fun to have a little emotional nourishment every now and then,” he says.

“It fun that we still get to have these friendships,” Richardson continues. “For us, it’s fun to look back. It’s also fun to look ahead and just know that we can be here for the next generation of Cravers, however they’re introduced to the brand. The Castle is always open.”

Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Story